Adult Attachment Styles

Early attachment studies by Bowlby and Ainsworth described the attachment behaviors of children around one year of age as “secure,” meaning the child experienced the caregiver as a safe haven, a secure base, and a source of soothing in the face of danger; or “insecure.” They subdivided insecure attachment into “avoidant,” sometimes called “dismissive,”  if infants did not show distress and did not seek soothing from the parent, and “ambivalent,” or “resistant,” if the infant was inconsolable by the parent. Among ambivalent babies, there were those who were passive and those who were angry. Passive babies remained unhappy, but were unable to pursue soothing, while angry babies tried to get soothing, but then were rejecting of the parent. An additional category, disorganized attachment, was added later, in what the researchers hypothesized were babies who saw the parent as both a source of soothing and a source of danger. 


This work with infants was expanded by Mary Main, who developed the adult attachment interview. She became able to predict infant attachment behavior before the infant was born by giving her adult attachment interview to their (future) mothers. Main identified adult attachment styles and studied how communication affects attachment, especially how language is used, which was more important  than the content of the communication. Ultimately, she thought that flexibility of thought, focus, affect, and memory were the markers of secure attachment styles in the mothers, and thus, in the children. (See David Wallins book, Attachment in Psychotherapy)


Ultimately, as Allan Schore describes, small children turn to their caregivers for help in monitoring and regulating their internal emotional state and to understand the reality of the external world. This early partnership creates structural brain development which then underlies adult capacities to apprehend reality and to use and regulate internal emotional states. The early attachment relationship forms a context within which a child learns to understand the world and to create “rules” for relationships (attachment) which will structure her or his functioning as an adult. 


We can see around us the results of early attachment styles: People who are dismissive of relationships as unimportant to their own well being; people who are anxious about relationships as both dangerous and necessary; people who are passive in the face of unhappiness, or people who are angry that their needs are not met. What is wonderful about later attachment research is that it shows that secure attachment can be earned. By developing a secure relationship, even as an adult, over time, we can gain the same inner well-being as those people who had secure attachments in childhood. This deep structure can affect the biological form of the brain, and it can change our experience of ourselves and the world. 


Sometimes long-term therapy seems self-indulgent or, worse, damaging in movies or stories. It is difficult to explain in brief terms the deep impact of coming to know yourself, allowing all of your history and emotion to be as it is, and to consciously experience yourself growing in a natural, expansive way. It is not a matter of cognition: understanding what has to happen. Like riding a bike, you gain the capacity for secure attachment by doing it. Most people who find their way into good long-term therapy are seekers. They are continually making efforts to improve their lives, and after some time, they discover that they can gain a greater and greater freedom in owning the territory in their own heads. To be sure, there are therapies and therapists who are self-serving, just as there are physicians and lawyers who are self-serving. This does not mean that you do not see a doctor or an attorney. It means that you do your best to find someone who is serious about his or her profession and serious about being helpful to you. 



About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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